10/23/2015 1:03PM

Hovdey: Making mind bets on Beholder vs. Zenyatta

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta wins the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic.

As long as we’re indulging in rampant fantasies – Cubs in the World Series; Trump in the White House – why not let the imagination run riot as Breeders’ Cup week at Keeneland begins? Why not wonder aloud what might have happened had the two finest mares of the young 21st century met at the top of the Breeders’ Cup mountain in the fullness of their 5-year-old form?

On Oct. 31, Beholder will try to do what only Zenyatta has done before. She will try to beat the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a stunt so daring it has been tried only six times in 30-plus years.

With a sample so small, it is hard to draw firm conclusions, but it’s fun to mix and match. Would the Europeans Triptych (sixth in 1986) and Jolypha (third in 1992) have been better served running in the Breeders’ Cup Turf rather than the Classic? How about putting Azeri in the 2002 Classic against Volponi instead of the 2004 version against Ghostzapper, Roses in May, and Pleasantly Perfect? You probably could run the 2011 Classic another dozen times, and Havre de Grace still would finish fourth. But who, besides those who backed Blame, wouldn’t want just one measly do-over of Zenyatta’s heartbreak from 2010?

Informed speculation can be enlightening, as opposed to the kind of idle noise dished out from most armchairs. In that spirit, the issue was put to the two principals who should have the best take on the mischievous question: Who wins – Beholder or Zenyatta?

It should be no surprise these are the guys. Between them, Mike Smith and Gary Stevens have been the regular jockeys for six Hall of Fame mares – Sky Beauty, Inside Information, Azeri, Silverbulletday, Winning Colors, and Serena’s Song – with Zenyatta and Beholder waiting in the wings.

Smith, 50, rode Zenyatta in all but the first three of her 20 races, while Stevens, 52, has been aboard Beholder in 10 of her 11 starts since September 2013. Smith subbed for Stevens aboard Beholder to win the 2014 Zenyatta Stakes when Stevens was recovering from knee-replacement surgery. The closest Stevens ever got to Zenyatta was as a racing broadcaster and passionate fan, and he remembers the emotional impact of Zenyatta’s victory in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“One of my greatest racing moments was watching Zenyatta win the Classic at Santa Anita, standing on the Turf Club mezzanine with my son T.C.,” Stevens said.

In fall 2009, the rider was in the midst of a seven-year break from competition, working primarily as an analyst for HRTV.

“I never heard a noise like that in my life,” Stevens said. “I was embarrassed because I had tears running down my cheeks, then I looked at T.C., and he had tears running down his cheeks, and everyone around us had tears running down their cheeks. Everybody was crying.”

Stevens pointed out that Smith and Zenyatta dug themselves a hole at the start of every race.

“It was so phenomenal, her making it to her last race unbeaten with her style of running,” Stevens said. “There were some sensational rides from Mike, and there were a couple of times, had he not been brave enough to cut the corner, she might not have won.

“I think Mike had a lot more anxious moments going into a race like the Breeders’ Cup than I’ve had with Beholder. Of course, I’m excited, and you run the race through your head. But if I’m on a deep, deep closer like Zenyatta, I know I’m going to have to get lucky at some point, unless they’re so much the best that I can fan them six wide, which doesn’t happen in a Breeders’ Cup Classic. Believe it or not, Beholder’s style has made my job pretty simple.”

So Beholder beats Zenyatta, right? She could do what only the colt Blame was able to do when he narrowly beat Smith’s mare in the 2010 Classic? Stevens went coy.

“I don’t want to make that kind of comparison,” he said. “I’ll just say the one thing Beholder has going for her that Zenyatta didn’t is her tactical speed and the way she runs on turns. A move like Beholder made in the Pacific Classic – when I was sitting still by the way – sucks the air out of a lot of horses.”

Smith got the best of Beholder by a half-length in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks while riding the 38-1 Princess of Sylmar.

“I didn’t know if I was going to beat anybody, let alone Beholder, but she was probably more beatable that day when she kind of lost it,” Smith said, recalling how Beholder spooked in the post parade and dumped Garrett Gomez. “She could be very difficult and aggressive at times. Where she’s at now compared to then is two totally different horses. She’s smarter, bigger, stronger – just in a different place, on a different level.”

Having both ridden and beaten Beholder, Smith must have a suspicion as to how she would have fared against Zenyatta. The Pacific Classic proved Beholder has a move that can blow a race wide open.

“I always thought the only way Zenyatta would get beat someday would be if someone just opened up and ran unbelievable fractions and then just held on late,” Smith said. “But that’s a pretty suicidal decision to make.”

Then how about backing the pace to a crawl and sprinting home? Surely Zenyatta could not spot a mare like Beholder 10 lengths in the final three-eighths of a mile?

“Even a slow pace you would have thought would work against her, but it actually helped her, which is very unusual,” Smith said. “With her long stride, you weren’t going to outfinish her, no matter what. So if you waited for her, you’d let her be that much closer.”

With Zenyatta unavailable, safely retired to a paddock at nearby Lane’s End Farm, Smith will try to beat Beholder and the rest in the Classic with Effinex, winner of the Suburban Handicap.

“I’m happy to be a part of it,” Smith said. “I’ll just be sitting back there, hoping they all get it on with each other early. Maybe that will let me in with a chance. But if Beholder runs as well as she’s been running and if American Pharoah jumps up with his A-plus race, it should be amazing to see.”